PR's creative lexicon tends to leave some at a loss for words

A recent e-mail promo urged me to "become a thought leader." Another told me to "tangibilize your services." Sounds like a plan, but what's that word again? As a prospective thought leader, I'm not sure that using it in public will advance my cause.

A recent e-mail promo urged me to "become a thought leader." Another told me to "tangibilize your services." Sounds like a plan, but what's that word again? As a prospective thought leader, I'm not sure that using it in public will advance my cause.

Fake words are nothing new in marketing. A communicator recently touted a new offering that would "encapture" key information, while one has a system guaranteed to "interoperate" with your existing one. Another PR pro reportedly assured a client that they were highly "mediable."

Clearly if you can't think of the right word, you should just make it up. But while the coining of such terms like "truthiness" by political satirist Stephen Colbert serves to elucidate a point, most made-up marketing words seem designed more to obfuscate. What does it really mean if you can't find the right way to express a concept or program? One of two things, really: Either it's not a well-thought-out idea, or it's not a very good one.

Fake words are one part of the larger problem of how to deliver accurate and meaningful communications throughout an organization. Often people know what they want to say, but struggle to articulate it. One problem is that everyone is always trying to sound "smart."

Journalists suffer from the same syndrome, and the auto-thesaurus function in word-processing systems is a co-conspirator in the crime of thwarting (or impeding, frustrating, obstructing) communications. It's also a fact that many people are still persuaded more by clever speechifying than true insight.

The leaders that most people listen to are those who speak their minds in clear language that gets to the point. Reporters in particular will return again and again to the source who speaks his or her mind in a straightforward way. Paul Argenti of Dartmouth's Tuck School is one of those people. Go hear him speak, or interview him, and you won't find yourself reaching for the dictionary, but rather for a pen, so you can make notes on the ideas that he has brought to mind for you.

What drives marketers to make up words is not always ignorance, but fear that what they have to offer is not really special, different, or new enough to make an impact. If 10 agency CEOs choose 10 verbs to describe what their firms do, they would select most of the same words. The essence of differentiation in the PR industry is not in words, but in execution; it's not in the theories, but in the work.

Corporate communicators need to take control of the ways their companies compose their messages, across all internal and external channels. If words are being invented, it's probably because better ones are unavailable. It takes time to tear down the layers of hyperbole and malapropisms to arrive at the essence of a product or identity. But it is a vital component to enable a true understanding of the brand, and it is an area that belongs squarely to communicators.

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